Robin Saville and Antony Ryan began experimenting together in 1991, releasing a string of singles on U.K. indie labels such as Wurlitzer Jukebox and Bad Jazz, but by the time of their debut album, Beautronics, the duo maintained their musical relationship long distance -- from separate English towns. Such distance served as little roadblock, however, because isan is at least partly about self-confessed technical ineptitude. The duo utilizes cheap analog equipment as a purposeful restriction on themselves, with the goal of creating modern music that belies its source, and this debut certainly achieves that goal. Beautronics is like a splatter painting of mechanized sounds in which beauty and electronics are inseparable components of the music; in fact, where there is congruence of the two, there are songs. The nature of the music is for the most part ambient, full of simple, wobbly analog synth squiggles and even simpler drumbeats, but the music itself is far from unsophisticated or slight. Although Saville and Ryan would likely cringe at such a notion, their music is sneakily intelligent, full of tonal color and textural skill masked by the apparent sparseness of the songs. Color is, in fact, a large thematic thread on the album; one song, the chirping "Paintchart," crystallizes this theme perfectly. Some of isan's songs could easily accompany a children's TV or puppet show (though it would admittedly have to be a rather warped one), as there is something naïve and wistful about them. Between the songs there are also short sound sketches with titles such as "Tint2-Rosy Apples" and "Tint5-Glittery Disco Blue" that further extend the painterly approach of isan, adding both coloring and depth to the album. At times, the music suggests the bumping together of metals, the eerie whirring of computer control panels, and the apocalyptic screech of sirens, all of which accentuate the fact that humans have already become at least half-machine themselves, at least in spirit. But it is also done in such a manner as to throw suspicion on the whole process, to weaken the seriousness and claustrophobia brought to millennial electronic music trends. Like Autechre, isan doesn't make anything easy for the listener. The music is stripped bare, and left to its own devices, to do its own work. All the hard, carved-out edges remain. There is no slickness, no overcomplication. And that, ironically, makes Beautronics even more of a complex achievement.
Share this page
AllMusic Review by Stanton Swihart